Portraits of Plants, Lesson 3

For the first lesson in this sequence, go here.

I always draw from real plants—never photographs—because plants are three dimensional and were once alive… They are physically present, and can move, change, and challenge the person drawing them. Sarah Simblet, Botany for the Artist

Two summers ago I signed up for a class on botanical drawing taught by Claudia Fitch. Most of our classes met at the wonderful Victorian conservatory at Volunteer Park in Seattle. It was a difficult experience for me in many ways, plunging me back into the sense of inadequacy that I remembered from my high school art classes.

Claudia began with assignments to produce contour drawings like those I described in the first two lessons. Then she introduced us to the concept of drawing negative space. The illustration from the Betty Edwards book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, shows how if we try to draw what we see (as the artist did in the top picture) we will often produce an unsatisfying reproduction. If instead we try to focus on the negative spaces and the outlines, we can produce something that looks more like the object being drawn.

When drawing a plant, the easiest way to see the negative space is to use a frame to isolate the plant. We created viewfinders out of thin cardboard (they should be the same proportion as the page on which you are sketching).  (You can also take a photograph to frame a subject as well.) What you want to do is make sure the plant is not floating in white space in the middle of the page but that it extends to the edges, on at least three sides. Then you draw the negative space, rather than the positive space. The illustration on the left comes from Edwards.

Claudia also taught us to do ten or so quick sketches, trying to frame the subject in different ways, before deciding how we were going to draw. We could move our frames (cut out of stiff cardboard) to see what would make for the best composition as in the example below. As you can see I didn’t finish all of my sketches of the tree trunk I was studying.

When I did these assignments, I became totally absorbed in the task at hand, just focusing on my tools (usually a pen or pencil and a sheet of white paper). It was only when I stopped drawing and looked at my drawing critically that I got frustrated. My sketches bore little resemblance to the plant in front of me.

Yet now, when I am no longer confronted by the actual tree, I am quite happy with the result. This unfinished sketch, takes me back in memory to the actual tree, to the intimacy established as I traced each of its curves with my pencil and then the charcoal.

Once we had achieved some success at reproducing the shapes we actually saw in front of us, we began working with tones and shading. Claudia had us create five distinct tones, ranging from very light to very dark, as samples on the side of the page and then isolate those tones on the plant, almost like doing a paint by number painting. Though it sounds mechanical, this was another interesting exercise in seeing what was really there, rather than what I thought. Again, I didn’t like this sketch of a broccoli leaf at the time I did it, but I can see that by focusing only on tone, I was able to capture some details that I would have overlooked because they didn’t fit my belief about how a leaf looks.

Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook suggests another way to learn how values work: choose a color photo and make a black-and-white reproduction of it. She also suggests turning the photograph upside down as a way to dissociate from what you think you know about the item you are drawing and look instead merely at the shapes and colors.

Making an Impression

And yet, I know artists whose medium is life itself and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased life. They see and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive. Frederick FranckThe Zen of Seeing

I have to admit I really struggled throughout the botanical drawing class. If, like me, you suffer from perceived artistic ineptitude, you might prefer some of these other ways of capturing the likeness of a plant.

Try painting making leaf impressions.  Claudia Nice in How To Keep A Sketchbook Journal describes her technique. She brushes leaves with a medium thick coat of water color, blots them with a paper towel and then presses them on the paper. Gaps in the print can be filled in afterwards with more of the water color paint. She mentions that fuzzy leaves like sage make nice prints. Siegel suggests experimenting with dry and damp paper. She places a piece of newsprint over the plant and smoothes it down with her fingers or an artist’s brayer, a little roller you can buy at art supply stores.

You can also do this in reverse. Put the leaf down on the page (it’s better if it’s something fairly flat and stiff), secure it to the paper with rubber cement or tiny bits of tape, then brush or sponge or spatter paint around it.

I own an extraordinary book called Leaves: In Myth, Magic & Medicine, which is composed of the most exquisite leaf prints created by Alice Thoms Vitale. She applied water-based printer’s ink to the surface of fresh leaves with a brayer. She then lowered the paper onto the leaf (rather than the other way around) and pressed carefully and selectively with her thumb. Then the paper was lifted off and allowed to dry. The delicacy of these images just has to be seen to be believed which is why I am reproducing the paper birch on this page to show you how Vitale elevates what seems like a child’s kindergarten project into an art form.

Another easy way to play around with the shapes of leaves is to do a shadow tracing. Place an object between the sun and your paper so that it casts a clear shadow. Then trace the outline. You can then color in the outline, if you like. I’ve done this with chalk on a sunny day with a tree shadow. It was a fun ephemeral art project.

Assignment for Week 3

If you aren’t totally terrified of an art assignment, then try any one of the sequence of steps I outlined above:

  • Choose a subject and draw it, focusing on the negative space.
  • Create a viewfinder; use it to make six or nine quick sketches framing your subject
  • Choose one view you like and spend time just filling in the negative space with color or charcoal
  • Choose a subject, create a tone palette and then color in your drawing

If you are terrified of art assignments, try one of the more playful approaches.

  • Paint a leaf or flower with water color paint and impress it on a wet or dry page
  • Outline a shadow of a leaf or flower
  • Create a stencil by placing a fern or other stiff plant on paper and painting around it
  • Draw around the shadow of a tree on the pavement with chalk

 

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Portraits of Plants, Part 2

Portraits of Plants, Week 2

Second in a series of posts from My Year in Flowers. During the month of April I learned how to draw plants. The first post is here.

Draw bamboos for ten years,
Become a bamboo,
Then forget all about bamboos when you are drawing.
Georges Duthuit

I produce pages of sketches for every plant I study. I usually begin with a contour drawing or spirit drawing. Then I do a more literal contour drawing, placing the flower on the page, and tracing around it. Although this usually produces a rather clumsy outline, at least I have a life-size reproduction.

Clare Walker Leslie and Charle E.Roth in their book Keeping A Nature Journal, recommend a series of sketches. A contour drawing, then a modified contour drawing (that is one where you are allowed to look at your page). They then recommend what they call quick gesture sketches. Looking at your subject and your page, draw a quick sketch in 5 seconds, then another in 10 seconds, then another in 15 seconds.

The next sketch is diagrammatic. This is where I focus on the details.  How many petals? How many stamens? How do they line up? I try to describe colors (a silvery pink, a greenish-brown) and note scents. As you work with the flower, the botanical terms that seemed so artificial become real. The intricate parallel lines of the monocot family become apparent in the leaf. You notice right away that the leaves are alternating rather than opposite on the stem. I find the sepals most interesting—like little green jewel cases with their green ribs and undulating shapes. They almost always recapitulate the number of petals and stamens.

I tend to draw flowers straight on but they rarely look right. Leslie and Roth suggest several different approaches: a profile, looking down, looking straight at the flower, viewing it from the side.

Sometimes I create a design sketch, breaking down the shape of the petals into simple shapes, lining them around the center in an ideal pattern. I examine the way the flower and the leaf are attached to the stem and draw those nodes on the paper. These botanical details can be rendered as blueprints, and in that way, they begin to resemble design patterns.

I’ve always dreamed in design. It used to be that when I closed my eyes, I would see designs for fabrics, for china, for wrapping paper, flashing behind my eyelids. These went away as I got older. Where did they go? Perhaps they atrophied due to disuse. But even now when I look at the plates from old herbals, the ones I like the most are the ones in which plants are “reduced to decoration” or “stylized beyond recognition” in the words of Wilfrid Blunt in his book The Illustrated Herbal.

William Morris is one of my heroes. I love the dense, color-saturated floral patterns of the wallpapers for which he is famous. Perhaps I was his wife, Janey Morris, in a former life and my visions of designs were simply etched into my brain because of all those hours spent embroidering them into curtains.  Try transforming your flower into a two-dimensional shape that will still convey the quality of the flower. What is the simplest shape that is still recognizable?

You also don’t need artistic talent to do this sort of drawing. Of course it helps. But I have none (as my high school art teacher made clear to me). Yet I manage to create sketches that are recognizable. More important, they are educational. Remember the purpose of the sketch is not to create a lifelike rendition of the flower, such that people will gaze at it and say, “Wow! That looks just like an alstromeria!” But rather that you will have learned more about it.

I was a snob about alstromerias until I drew one. I thought of them as frivolous products of the cut flower trade. They have no scent and they last forever in the vase, two signs of a flower that has been turned into a freak of nature. But a few years ago I spent two cold, wet weeks in March at a writer’s retreat. The only flowers to be found were the alstromerias that had been purchased to adorn the main house where we ate our dinners. I took a few stems with me to my cabin in the woods and I began to draw them. It was me and the alstromerias for hours. I could not get enough of them. I loved the clever shape of the flower with its three rounded pink tepals, serving as a base, for the more narrow, more vertical tepals, flaunting splashes of yellow and distinctive black nectar lines, designs as decorative as the spots of a cougar or the stripes of a zebra, luring bumblebees into the nectar at the heart of the flower.  I loved the six-sided little green basket of the ovary, the three little curlicues on each pistil. I loved the way the snake-like curve of the stem, the twist of the leaves. Never again will I snub an alstromeria.

Assignment for Week 2

Continue to sketch flowers. Choose another one. Bold flowers with simple shapes are probably the easiest. Lilies and tulips. Buy a stem of flowers from the grocery store or florist if you can’t find anything you like in your garden. A stem with leaves is just fine.

Try a number of different techniques: contour drawings, quick gesture sketches, tracing the outline of the flower, viewing the flower from different angles, diagramming the various parts, reducing a flower to its simplest outline.

For the third lesson in this series, go here.

Illustrations: The lovely William Morris design is the pattern called Chrysanthemum. I found the painting of the sage looking at the bamboo here. I took the photo of the alstromerias I was drawing. But I haven’t found the drawing I did of them.

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Portraits of Plants #1

 

From A Curious Herbal, published in Nuremburg in 1757

The way of seeing is a way of knowing.
Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing

I found identifying plants difficult until I began drawing them. When I first chose a conifer to identify, a scrubby evergreen at the corner of my block, I spent weeks puzzling over it. I cut off a sprig and studied it, comparing it to the illustrations in my tree identification book. I took photographs with my new digital camera but they didn’t capture the details that seemed so relevant to me: the milky color of the swelling bud tips, the nascent cones, jutting forth on the stems, clotted with fresh scales. It was a spruce, I thought, but the tree book contained at least 22 varieties of spruce, none of which resembled my specimen.

Finally I sit down and sketch it in my notebook. Here a packet of needles, unpacked. I learn there are two in each bundle. There an attempt to draw those phallic bud tips. A more mature cone dissembles into scales, each a diamond with an impressed oval at its highest point. When I turn the cone upside down I see the scales are actually rectangles, fanning out from a central point like blades in a fan. The growing cone resembles a miniature pineapple, with a flush of chartreuse green beneath the brown scales. By the time I am done, my fingers are covered with sap. A little bug crawls out of the cone and onto my page. I whisk it outside. The scent of pine fills the room, evoking Christmas.

Nothing gets you up close and personal as quickly as sketching a plant. You take it apart like the pieces of a puzzle, poring over each fragment, sniffing out its mysteries. So many ways to look at it. Prying open the petals to count the pistils and stamens. Twirling the stem in your fingers. Outlining it with a pen, while pinning the plant in place with a fingertip. Tracing the network of veins on the leaves. Shading in the shadows on the folds of the petals. Noticing the tiny star on the base of the berry.

As I handle the plant, turning it upside down, flattening it, pressing back the petals, fondling the leaves, details emerge that surprise and delight me. It’s like exploring a lover’s body during those lazy hours you spend in bed at the start of a relationship. A snowdrop has never been the same since I peeled back its petals and found, to my surprise, striped green sepals inside.

I learned my favorite drawing technique—contour drawing–years ago in a high school art class. Betty Edward also describes it in her seminal book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The instructions are simple. Look at your subject. Put your pen down on the page. Outline the contours of the object with your pen. Do not look at your paper. Do not take your pen off the page. Resist the temptation to peek at your drawing as you proceed. This often turns a lively sketch into something stiff and stilted (though perhaps more accurate).

Why does this technique work better than conscious imitation? What we believe we see is not what we really see. Try drawing a cup while looking at the cup. Then draw it again using contour drawing. I think you will be surprised by how much more the second version actually resembles a cup. We have a notion of a cup shaped by our three-dimensional experience with it but it’s not the cup our eye sees.

I used contour drawing throughout high school and college classes to capture portraits of my teachers, other students, my shoes and my own hand drawing. Sometimes you get an undecipherable tangle of squiggles. But other times you end up with a lovely sketch that really captures the essence of the person.

Spirit drawing takes contour drawing to another level. Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook says it’s as if “what the eyes sees then travels through the heart (the emotional heart, which can recognize the spirit or essence of an object—something the mind cannot do), then continues down the arm and fingers, and finally through the pen or other tool and is then recorded onto the paper.”

Before beginning to draw, spend time simply taking in the subject as much as possible.

Then take your pen (Siegel encourages the use of a pen, as it will force you to commit), choose a spot on the subject, and focus your eyes and attention there. Begin drawing, traveling along the lines of the object. If you are drawing a flower, pretend you are a tiny bug traversing the edges of each petal. Or you can imagine tracing the edges of the subject with your fingertip, the gentle caress of a lover. After tracing the outline, you can begin to trace some of the interior edges.

Siegel uses spirit drawing as a warm-up before a more studied attempt and I’ve used it this way as well. I have to admit that the first sketches are often more lively than the sketches I labor over. As the name implies, they capture more of the spirit of the plant.

For instance, here’s an attempt to analyze the way a plantain plant looks as it bursts into blossom.

And here is a spirit drawing I did of the same plant as it withered and shrunk. I think it has more life (though it’s clearly ebbing away).

 

 

 

Although I’ve been practicing spirit drawing on flowers, I’ve also started using it to capture glimpses of my everyday life. I have to admit these are my favorites. For instance, this picture of a dog I saw at my favorite café, Pettirosso, one afternoon. It might be hard for you to tell what this is supposed to represent, but for me it vividly recalls that moment when the dog woke up to look at a customer.

Assignment for April, Week 1

Try doing a contour drawing of a plant this week. Don’t despair if your first version is a bunch of squiggles. Try again. Do a drawing a day. If you start to feel comfortable with the contour drawings, try a spirit drawing. Then write up a report on how it went.

If you’d like to share your sketches, you could post them on Facebook, either in the private group for A Year in Flowers 2017 (you need to “friend” me on Facebook and I can invite you) or on the Living in Season page.

For lesson 2 of Portraits of Plants and a new assignment, go here.

 

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Wet January

winter creek

Photo by John Brew

by Kelly Fine

January is the middle of the long wet season here in Seattle. It’s mid-January and I’m sitting beside a fast-flowing stream, a piece of vinyl between me and the wet sponge of the forest floor. I’ve come to my favorite neighborhood park – a remnant of second-growth forest – to see what drizzle, rain, and fog have made of the woods.

I visit these woods often enough to know that the leaf litter surrounding me has been wet for months. The water and fine sand splashed over its surface give it a matte sheen. On cold nights the leaves freeze brittle, and over the course of the overcast mornings, each leaf slowly relaxes again. As usual, it’s overcast today, and beyond the trees I can see a stretch of the white stratus cloud blanketing Seattle. That’s because the maples and alders surrounding me have lost their leaves for winter, and most of the taller shrubs have done the same. If I were a tree facing six months of cool, dim winter, I’d probably give up my leaves and go dormant too. But winter brings plenty of rain to those plants that keep their leaves all season, and the clearings in the canopy allow plenty of cloud-strained light to reach the understory evergreens — Oregon grape, young conifers, sword ferns, salal, and the mosses and lichens that grow on every surface of these woods and thrive in the Northwest winter.

Photo by Michelle Simkins

Photo by Michelle Simkins

When I lived in southern California, I thought I knew what health looked like: chaparral growing steadily in the sunlight, ravens gliding overhead. But in these wet woods, health looks like moss slowly pushing forth into another white day, drinking water from the air. On the lower branches of a small hemlock near me, moss grows long and thick. Sprays of hemlock needles emerge from the mats of moss, but it’s the moss that will shade the ground during the next cloudbreak. The moss reminds me of a retriever’s fur, muddy but drying in clumps after a dunk in the river.

Photo by Curtis Kukal

Photo by Curtis Kukal

Big-leaf maples must be the mossiest trees in the Northwest. Running my hand over the damp moss of the maple trunk beside me, I notice a pale dust lichen splattered over its surface and fir needles caught deep in its net. Springing from the moist decay held in place by the moss, I find a small mushroom, its delicate cap thin as an inner artichoke leaf. But the most prominent living things springing from the moss are licorice ferns. Moisture-loving, they poke their tips out from the moss every fall when the rains return. After the maples lose their leaves in November, the ferns come into their prime; maybe this access to the sky gives them the light and water they crave. Now they’re extending more than a foot out from the maple trunk beside me, and their tips are just starting to feel the pull of gravity. I’m not sure I’ll ever adjust entirely to the sight of ferns growing from live tree trunks, but almost every big-leaf maple in these woods supports at least a few of them.

Rain is never far from these woods in winter, and now it arrives, a few hard drops splattering my notebook page. Soon the mere tug of a pen will tear that page. I have a lot to do today, and the cold is starting to stiffen my writing hand. Rain gathers at the tip of a sword fern leaf, sags into a teardrop, and rips free. I want to stay and see more, but I should go. As I’m debating, a black lab discovers me on the ground and gives one startled bark. I tell him it’s okay, and he comes wriggling to bury me in steaming breath and dog delight.

 

Kelly Fine writes from suburban Seattle. Find her at Cracked Offering.

To view more of John Brew’s photos, go to Flickr. To see more photographs and other work by Michelle Simkins, go to her website:  Greenwoman Studio.

 

 

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Slow Flowers

Dahlias by Debra Prinzig

I’m a big fan of Debra Prinzig. Naturally. Since she wrote a book called Slow Flowers (it was originally titled A Year in Flowers which worried me a little since that’s the working title for the book I’m writing about connecting with nature in my city neighborhood).

Debra is a garden writer who became alerted to the issues inherent in purchasing flowers after reading Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential, which was a wake-up call for me as well. Stewart traveled internationally to learn about the cut flower trade. In her chapter on roses, she documents the unnatural conditions in which the flowers are grown (tricked into blooming out of season with lights) , the efforts to breed flowers that are strong and long-lasting (thus breeding out fragrance and fragility), the poisons in which they are dipped (which affect the workers as well), and the long distances they travel, via airplane and refrigerated trucks, to get to your local grocery store or florist shop.

Debra began visiting the new breed of florists, flower farmers and floral designers who are focusing on local and seasonal flowers. She documents their work in her book The 50 Mile Bouquet, a play on the slow food movement’s exhortation to eat foods grown within a 50 mile foodshed.

Inspired by what she learned, Debra decided to create a banquet every week, using only local and seasonal flowers and foliage. She showcase the results in her book, Slow Flowers, and she continues to post seasonal arrangements on her blog, like those gorgeous dahlias from October 2013.

I gave myself (and the students in the Year in Flowers class) the assignment to make a flower arrangement using local and seasonal flowers. And it’s completely changed the way I walk around the block. Instead of looking at plants and naming them or pondering what I can do with them (a cordial, a salad, a salve), now I’m noting color, texture and shapes. My perception has shifted from useful to aesthetic. Now what would I pair with that fabulous leaf—purple on one side and bronze on the other? Some bright yellow calendulas? And what about those black berries? What would happen if I paired them with a cloud of white Michaelmas daisies?

I’m also noticing flower arrangements more when I encounter them. Waiting for a friend at a café, I was struck by the beauty of an arrangement of green hydrangeas in a tall jade green vase, with a few rust-colored leaves, red berries and cedar branches. And later in the day at a café in LaConner, I was impressed by the simple yet artful bouquet on our table: unique maroon buds with a sprig of something with tiny lime-green leaves tucked in on the side. I don’t even have to know their names to appreciate their beauty.

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The Isle of Eigg

by Fiona Doubleday

I am rethinking my relationship with time and, in particular with the seasons, after a recent visit to the Isle of Eigg off the west coast of Scotland.  The island is only 5 miles long and is owned by the 80 residents who call it home.  In 1997 the islanders raised the funds necessary to buy their island ending a long period of unsettling change.  Since then I think the islanders believe anything is possible and their engagement with life is evidence of that.

Eigg is the most beautiful of islands with heather hugging hillsides that seep away towards sandy shores.  To the north west of the island lies the island of Rum.  This island watches over Eigg and offers up the most astonishing summer sunsets.  I was humbled on Eigg as I walked the shores and climbed the hills letting the land speak its own tales.

It is a land that is carved out by crofters who continue to live off the land with their roots firmly fixed in seasonal changes.  I am not sure you could live on Eigg and not live through and with the seasons.  In the summer the days are so long with warmth and light to grow the food.  In the winter the days are much shorter and the wind and rain take a grip on the tiny island.  Islanders spoke of days and nights dictated by seasonality as part of the heartbeat of island living.

This tiny land is often battered by Atlantic storms and in those times the ferry does not sail.  The people of Eigg are cut off from the people who supply them with so much, making the community pull together to survive.  Self sufficient in energy, the islanders are far more aware of how much energy they are using and have become experts at living with less.  Only a very few cars travel the single island road, erasing motor sounds from the soundscape.  The result is true peace.

Peace is around every corner and through every flowing burn.  Your ears adjust to a different way of hearing.  Your body is cleansed by clean air as it learns, once more, to breathe deeply.

When I first stepped onto the island I had an overwhelming feeling that humans shouldn’t be on this land.  I tried to walk gently on the land as if to acknowledge the spiritual guardian that is Mother Nature.  My breakthrough moment came while standing alone on the shore.

While encircled by a wild soundscape, I entered into a deep and illuminating meditation which reached to the deepest parts of my soul.  My conscious mind filled with images from my childhood: growing up in the countryside and feeling completely and utterly free.  These were very old memories that had long been forgotten and I welcomed them back.  As the meditative state began to depart I felt much closer to the land that is the Isle of Eigg.

My travels later that day took me to an old crofting museum where I met her.  She was sitting on her wooden chair by the fire but her bones had grown cold and weary.  As I sat with her she began to tell me of a life well lived with a family much adored.  She was a crofter on a small Scottish island in a time now forgotten. She told me about a time when crofting was all that there was.  Her family lived on the edge of survival for long periods when the weather grew harsh and the land tired.

Her tales inspired every step I took from that point onwards.  She stayed with me the rest of my time on Eigg, even while I was visiting the tea rooms buzzing with locals waiting for the supplies to come off the ferry.  As they chatted, she watched and I listened.  When it was time to leave I looked for her but she had gone.  She will be back on her chair with her bones growing cold.  But now I can take her tales of a life well lived and know that, through her, I learned to walk with the land.  My visit to Eigg took me back to a place located deep in my soul and I will be forever grateful.

 

All photos by Fiona Doubleday.

Fiona Doubleday is the mother of four beautiful children and lives on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. They live on a smallholding where they grow herbs, cut flowers and willow. Fiona runs a small craft company With Love From Arran and is a freelance writer. She teaches online courses, blogs regularly as Scottish Island Mum and is creating a new web site called One Soul Many Hearts which launches October 11.

 

 

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Temple of Rhododendrons

My friend, Mary Oak, introduced me to the concept of Goethean observation. J. W. vonGoethe, who I knew only as an author, had wide-ranging interests, which included science. As a writer, he was on the leading edge of the Romantic movement and as a scientist, he moved away from the objective scientific method popular at this time. His approach was similar to what we call today a holistic approach, studying plants in their own environment, rather than as dead samples in a herbarium, and appreciating the whole plant as well as the parts. Rudolf Steiner admired Goethe’s perspective and incorporated it into his teaching, which is how Mary, who teaches at Sound Circle Center, learned about it,

None of the human faculties should be excluded from scientific activity. The depths of intuition, physical exactitude, the heights of reason and sharpness of intellect together with a versatile and ardent imagination, and a loving delight in the world of the senses—they are all essential for a lively and productive apprehension of the moment. Goethe

Under Mary’s tutelage, I used Goethean observation to get to know a rhododendron at Volunteer Park. I must admit that prior to my observation I had a lot of disdain for rhododendrons, those ubiquitous plants that decorate the yard of every older Seattle home. But going through Goethe’s process changed my perspective.

Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us. Goethe

Goethe suggested getting to know a plant by moving through four phases, from the most objective to the most subjective. In the first phase, you make precise observations. For instance: the flowers are purple, have five petals, have ten pistils and one stamen. The flowers appear in groups of ten at the end of slender branches. I could go on and on, but the point is to simply state the facts without interpretation, so even though I might want to speculate on why there are ten pistils (two for each petal?) or describe the branches as weaving a basket of flowers, I restrain myself. The goal is a list of observable facts.

There is a secret element of regularity in the object which corresponds to a secret element of regularity in the subject. Goethe

In the second phase, your goal is to look for patterns and repetition within the plant, and to imagine how the plant develops through time. For instance, you might pick leaves in various phases and lay them all in a row to see how a leaf develops. I didn’t do this with a leaf but I did observe the flower in almost every phase, from the bud to the shed petals which littered the ground beneath the plant. The flowers about to open looked wet and crinkled. When they unfolded the golden spots on the most vertical of the petals attracted bees which were crawling into the flowers. And then the petals slipped off, leaving behind the pistils and the stamen. The base of the stamen began to swell. The plant I was observing even had some dried fruits from the previous season: hard stems, brown nut-like fruits and some papery seeds inside.

During these first two phases, drawing the plant helps you develop your observation powers and slow down to more thoroughly appreciate the details of the plant. I traced around the actual shape of a flower and pressed one into the pages of my journal. The color got even brighter and more fluorescent against the white of the blank page.

We do not know what is stirring in the atmosphere that surrounds us, nor how it is connected with our own spirit. So much is certain—that at times we can put out the feelers of our soul beyond its bodily limits, and a presentiment, an actual insight is accorded to us. Goethe

In the third phase, the mystical and subjective enter the equation. Step back and allow words to enter your mind that might express the spirit of the plant. For a writer, this is the time when the metaphors and adjectives I’ve been suppressing come to the forefront. The sunlight fell through the foliage of the rhododendron creating a dappled shade underneath. The trunk grew straight up, then the branches arched and curved outward, and the thinner, more supple branches that bore the leaves and flowers bent down even more, creating a sense of enclosure. The effect was that of a temple, with the flowers as offerings to the gods. The word “glory” came into my mind, and with it a sense of joyous exaltation (and this was from someone who has never liked rhododendrons).

The fourth phase remains mysterious to me. This is the realm of the poets. It involves becoming one with the plant, so much so, that you could speak as the plant, for the plant. It takes time to develop. I will work up to it by practicing the first three steps. Still, I felt my first exposure to Goethean observation was successful. A plant that I had previously overlooked is now one I view with appreciation. If you have the time and desire to get to know a plant better, I recommend this practice.

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Measuring the Immeasurables

For the past month, I’ve been focusing on the practice of phenology, with the students enrolled in my Year of Flowers class. Phenology is the practice of tracking seasonal changes in nature. Phenology pretends to be a science, but I think it’s really an art, and an art closely allied to poetry.

Change is always happening in nature, and it happens gradually. But in order to accurately annotate when change occurs, phenologists have to pinpoint the change (called a phenophase) to a particular moment in time. The data must also be attached to a particular place. At Project Budburst, where I am making reports on five plants I have chosen to observe over the year,  I must name each location and provide latitude and longitude, plus details of the site where the plant grows (shading, irrigation, habitat, etc.) .)

If you want to see a truly wonderful visual example of this go to Nature’s Calendar, the British phenological site, and click on Maps. Here’s a direct link to the snowdrop map , one of my favorites. When the map is fully loaded, click on the little bar that displays two red arrows at the top of the blank graph and slide it to the right, to watch the snowdrops burst into blossom all over the United Kingdom.

The language of phenology is as delightful as it is precise. For instance, budburst is defined as the date when the widest part of the newly emerging leaf has grown beyond the ends of its opening winter bud scales. Or (at another web site) the date when the protective scale coating is shed from the bud exposing tender new growth tissues of one or more flower buds or leaves. First bloom (for most flowers) occurs when the petals are open enough so you can see the stamens inside. In plants that have catkins or cones, first flower occurs when the plant starts disseminating its yellow pollen. Other markers such as full flower and full leaf are indicated by percentages: full leaf means 90% of all the leaves on the plant are open, while full flower requires less of a show: only 50%.

These measurements help create a standard process that can be easily quantified and thus easily reported but end up omitting the true sensory experience of being with plants, like the crinkled, glossy texture of the dark green leaves of the passion flower unfurling or the spatter of spent maple blossoms on the sidewalk, crunching under foot. So although we come to phenology with a desire to be more attuned to nature, the emphasis on analysis and annotation can sometimes get in the way of truly seeing the world around us.

That’s why I asked the participants in the Year in Flowers class to also look  for immeasurables.  I was inspired by reading Hannah Hinchman’s book A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place. In this lovely, illustrated book, Hinchman draws maps of the place she lives and sketches the plants she encounters. She makes detailed observations, for instance this about the way different trees extend their seasonal growth:

Beech droops.
Ash extends symmetrically.
Maple makes pagodas.
Oak like small mice.
Horse-chestnut umbrellas.
Pignut hickory like cupped hands.

 One of the things Hinchman notices (and records in her journal) while walking around her neighborhood is “kinds of shadows cast on the bottoms of shallow streams by the movement of the water surface, or things floating on it.”

Different students in my class chose different immeasurables, for instance, Nancy is observing spring runoff—she noted the drinking sounds from the trees, with the thickets of aspen demonstrating the most gusto. Anne Marie is tracking seasonal affective disorder. I’m not sure how she’s measuring it but Bill Felker’s whose Poor Will’s Almanack  I’ve enjoyed for years (he didn’t create a print version this year but you can check out his blog posts), used to have a system that involved points for cloud cover, weather conditions and number of hours in a day that resulted in a total score. Mary in Texas noted how the morning light streamed from the southeast, striking the table in the dining room. “Sometimes it is so bright we can’t comfortably sit at the table.” Rasma is watching reflections in water. Her observations were like poetry:

Feb 16: wind ruffles, fir needle boats, blue blue sky
Feb 21: snow clouds and croaking raven wings, pointillist tree back against blue and white; vee-line geese
Feb 22: evening shadows with birds heading to roost; purple depths and windblown orange leaves
Feb 23: sunny ripples; multiple hues of green, brown, gold against cerulean blue

What immeasurable can you measure?

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Leaf Prints

Last week while downtown in Seattle, I found these glorious leaf prints on the sidewalk, and they seem to be the perfect illustration of what happens when nature meets the city (in this case concrete sidewalks).

Of course, I went looking for information about what causes leaf prints. The main theory seems to be that they are created by tannins in the leaves, the same tannins that dye the water brown when you make tea or that make your mouth pucker when you drink relatively young red wine. These tannins don’t leach out of leaves when they are green, but only when they are decaying in autumn.

The word tannin comes from the word for oak tree (Tannenbaum in German) and is related to tanning, as it was used to tan leather. Tannins that leach into water from decaying vegetation can create brown and even black colored rivers.  This photo I found at Wikipedia, which was taken by Doronenko, shows the confluence of the Morava, a blackwater river, with the Danube (the light color in the top left).

In my neighborhood, most of the leaf prints have disappeared, washed into the gutters by the rain, or perhaps my neighbors swept them away before they could set. I don’t know the optimal time frame for creating a leaf print. I think it’s time for some experiments. Maple leaves seem to be the best for making prints on the sidewalk, though I’ve also seen oak leaf prints at this link.

Another website solicited names for these, besides leaf prints, and got some creative versions including leaf stains, ghost leaves, tannin shadows, leaftovers and foliagraphs.

The web is full of craft projects to do with children to create leaf prints. Most use the simple technique you probably learned as a child, painting the leaves with tempera paints and pressing them on paper. Or putting a paper over a leaf and crayoning on top of it. The craft project I found most interesting was this one which suggets using a hammer to mash the actual color of the leaves and flowers into a page of paper.

Many years ago, I was given a beautiful book called Leaves: In Myth, Magic and Medicine, by Alice Thomas Vitale which elevates leaf prints to an art form. She simply used black ink and a brayer to create this elegant studies of various leaves but the results are amazing in their detail and vitality. The text is as lovely and respectful of the plants as are the leaf prints.

 

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Wild Grasses

I became an urban naturalist because of my fascination with holidays, an obsession that began back when I was a lonely sophomore at Reed College, spending my evenings in the library, copying weird customs out of Funk and Wagnall’s Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology and led me to graduate school at UCLA in Folklore and Mythology. Somewhere along the years of studying and celebrating, I recognized that most holiday customs were related to what was happening in nature at that particular place at that particular moment in time.

This day, August 15, is one of my favorite holidays because I can celebrate it with a simple custom: gathering wild grasses. I learned about this tradition from Gertrud Mueller Nelson who learned about it from her mother, who took her children down to the river to gather wild grasses on August 15, the Catholic feast of the Assumption. They would bring the grasses home in big bundles and pray over them. This ritual derived from a German custom of gathering wild flowers and herbs on this holiday and taking them to church to be blessed by the priest.

August 15 is an old harvest holiday (probably once celebrated on the full moon), when the grain goddess (later the Virgin Mary) would be asked to protect the harvest. All I ask is an opportunity to learn more about the wild grasses that grow on my block. There are plenty of those fancy ornamental grasses, planted by homeowners for decoration, and I admire those, but I’m more interested in the wild grasses, and their resemblances to rye, barley and wheat, the grains that have nourished humankind for centuries.

For a while, I was following the blog of Henry, a professor in San Francisco, who had taken on the project of identifying all the wild grasses he could find in the city in his blog. His commitment only lasted for two months in 2007 but it inspired me. How many wild grasses can you find and identify today?

 

The lovely photograph was taken by Melissa West.

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